Thai-based restorative treatment works wonders on tired, sore and stressed bodies

  • Written by Deborah Stone

(I’m always on the lookout for unique body treatments offering variations on the theme of healing and relaxation. Being a massage connoisseur, I’ve tried everything from hot stone and reflexology to Lomi Lomi and Watsu. Whenever I travel, I seek out treatments that are indicative to the region or culture I am visiting. My latest favorite, however, is one I discovered right here in my own backyard.

It’s called “Thai Herbal Balls” massage and it’s conveniently offered at The Spa at Willows Lodge. Heated cloth balls filled with a special blend of herbs are the key components of this treatment, along with a technique that involves rhythmic tapping, followed by rolling or kneading with the herbal spheres.

Its roots stem from the practice of Thai herbal compress therapy, which dates back nearly 5,000 years to an era when knowledge of plants and their effects on the body were studied and then subsequently passed on through the generations.

This therapy was designed to relieve pain and reduce inflammation via the use of herbs such as prai, ginger, turmeric and lemongrass, which were wrapped in a muslin compress, steamed and then applied to the body in gentle pressing and circular movements. The treatment continues to be popular today in Thailand and is offered throughout the country from storefront massage establishments to high-end spas. In recent years, it has made its way to the West and now an increasing number of practitioners are becoming trained in the practice.

The Spa at Willows Lodge began offering Thai Herbal Balls massage four years ago, according to the spa’s director, Val Simkins. “When I first heard of it,” says Simkins, “I was intrigued. I then experienced it and instantly loved how it made me feel. It has so many benefits, much more than a hot stone massage, in my opinion.” She adds, “The combination of aromatherapy, thermal therapy and herbal therapy works to target joint and muscle pain and is great for people who suffer from arthritis, as it really soothes and also helps with circulation. The herbs in particular really help with inflammation, as well as detoxification. I think it is very relaxing and stress-reducing, too.” Simkins notes that the treatment is popular at Willows, though not as well-known as some other massage techniques. She comments, “People are curious about it and are drawn to the description. Those who try it are never disappointed. They rave about it and come back for more.”

Nancy Sleeth, the therapist who performed my Thai Herbal Balls massage, has been doing the treatment since it was introduced at the spa. She says that there is specific training involved in learning to do the procedure effectively and that it takes time and practice to become successful at it.

She emphasizes that it’s the combination of the properties of the herbs, the aromatherapy, the heat and the technique that give the treatment its “power.” Sleeth adds, “They all work together to send people to a different place, a good place.”

Sleeth tells about two past clients she had, one with chronic pain and another who was very leery about massage in general, especially deep pressure. The first had tried everything to relieve her pain to no avail. With the Thai Herbal Balls, she was finally able to relax – something she hadn’t been able to do for a long time – because her pain eased just enough so she could finally let go.

The other client put several restrictions on her massage, creating a challenge for Sleeth to sufficiently modify the procedure. “Even with it being modified, she was blown away by the experience,” explains Sleeth. “She told me that it was so soothing and that it really helped with her inflammation.”

After my session with the Thai Herbal Balls, I can attest to similar feelings. I went in with a sore hip, a bruised foot and plenty of tightness in my shoulders, neck and upper back.

The heat felt marvelous, but it was the ability of the herbal balls to penetrate into these problematic areas that made the difference.

Sleeth notes that because of their shape, she can employ the spheres to reach deep inside the muscle via the rolling or kneading technique.

She adds, “I also think the rhythmic nature of the compressions and the repetitive motion are really essential to the whole process.”

The icing on the top for me was the gentle stretching that followed, along with the “finish” massage work.

I left the spa feeling intensely relaxed, yet energized and invigorated, from this restorative treatment. And what’s more, I was able to take the herbal compresses with me and use them again for my own home massage purposes.

For more information about this treatment or any others offered at The Spa at Willows Lodge: (425) 424-2900 or

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